With a young core and a hard-working attitude, the Phoenix Suns became one of the more intriguing stories of the 2019-20 NBA season. Though the team struggled a bit in the early stages of the campaign, it managed to bounce back in a big way. In fact, Phoenix won all eight of its games inside the bubble, but that still wasn’t enough to garner a spot in Western Conference Playoffs. Instead, the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies will face off in a play-in series for the 8th and final seed.
The Suns were on the rise, but now they’re leaving the bubble. Still, their push for the postseason is a story that is worth telling.
Historic Bubble Phoenix Suns Going home
Impressively, the Suns were the only team to win all eight of their games inside the NBA’s bubble complex in Florida. It was their longest winning streak since the 2009-10 season, when they won 10 a row. However, the team still needed a bit of help.
Phoenix needed either Memphis or Portland to lose to get into a play-in series for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. Unfortunately, neither of those scenarios played out in the Suns’ favor. The Grizzlies, a team that struggled in the bubble, managed to hold on for a spot in the play-in series. The Trail Blazers, on the other hand, survived a scare against the Brooklyn Nets in their final regular season game to secure a spot.
Notable: Without Kelly Oubre Jr. (knee) or Aron Baynes (knee) playing in the scrimmages or seeding games, Phoenix defeated six teams that are in the playoffs.
Bubble-time Devin Booker
Suns guard Devin Booker was one of the breakout stars inside the bubble. The former Kentucky Wildcat averaged 30.5 points while shooting 50 percent from the field. In Thursday’s win over the Mavericks, he racked up 27 points with a +30 while on the court. 23 of his game-high 27 points came in the first half alone. If there is going to be any sort of bubble MVP award, he’ll need to be in the discussion.
And let’s not forget Booker’s buzzer-beater over Clippers stars Paul George and Kawhi Leonard earlier this month:
Though the season is over for Phoenix, Booker seemed content in Thursday’s post-game interview, noting that he is pleased with the way his team played in the bubble:
“We had one objective — to get better — and we did that,” Booker said, via ESPN. “I think we approached this with the right mindset from the beginning, from practices, from training camp in Phoenix, from the first two weeks we got down here, everybody was locked in on all cylinders.”
Booker is right to be pleased with his team’s performance in the bubble. The Suns, who finished with a 34-29 overall mark for the season, averaged 122 points in the eight games.
The Suns got quite a bit of production from reserve players like Cameron Payne and Jevon Carter inside the bubble. Phoenix signed Payne to its final roster spot back in July. He was taken 14th overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015, but injuries led him out of the NBA (played in China and the G League). Now, though, the former Murray State star is making the most of this shot in the league.
Payne was waiting for a call to get back into the NBA, and he finally got it from his former assistant head coach, Monty Williams.
“It was huge to get that call from him,” Payne recounted, via SB Nation. “Man, I jumped out of that pool so fast and got on that call. It was almost like a weight lifted off my back, because the only thing I want to do is be back in the NBA. And now I got that opportunity.”
As he was throughout most of the bubble campaign, Payne was productive in the Suns’ final outing. He logged 29 minutes, scoring 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting (3-of-5 from downtown), five rebounds, two assists and a plus/minus score of +20.
Mikal Bridges has proven to be an efficient player for the Suns this season. His offensive numbers are respectable for a second-year small forward (9.1 points on 51 percent shooting this season), but it’s his defensive prowess that been most impressive.
At 6-6 and 210 pounds, Bridges is a versatile player that can guard multiple positions. The former Villanova Wildcat took his play to the next level in Orlando, however, scoring in double figures in six of Phoenix’s eight games, including an 18-point, six-rebound outing in a blowout win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Through 73 games played this season, he racked up 1.4 steals per game.
Earlier this month, Mikal’s name started circulating on social media. It’s not clear as to why this happened, aside from the fact that he is well-liked by Suns fans.
Twitter erupted in Mikal Bridges tweets. Eventually, the Suns even joined in:
— 8-0 (@Suns) August 11, 2020
Bridges appreciated the love, but he was a bit confused:
Broooo what ?? 😂😂😂😂😂
— Mikal Bridges (@mikal_bridges) August 11, 2020
The full Monty
The Suns hired Monty Williams as their head coach in May of 2019, replacing a fired Igor Kokoskov. Williams signed a five-year deal with the team, according to reports. The Virginia native became the 20th head coach in franchise history and fifth in seven seasons.
Williams has earned the respect of his players, and he seems to have the team moving in the right direction. Coming into their bubble campaign, the Suns were facing the steepest of odds. Yet, they nearly managed to defy them.
Fighting back emotions, Williams actually told his players that he loved them after their final game in the bubble:
“This was therapeutic for me — to be around the group,” Williams said in a post-game locker room. “I wanna tell you guys, I love you. I do.
“I don’t care what happens tonight,” Williams added, referring to the team’s chances of getting a spot in the play-in series. “It has been cool for me to be with y’all — to watch you guys work, battle and gain the respect of your peers the way you have.”
— 8-0 (@Suns) August 13, 2020
All things considered, the light that the Suns gave fans inside the bubble should not be diminished. Clearly, this is a team that has a bright future. Let’s see if the progress they made this season translates to the next.